Ballinlough’s Japanese Gardens remains one the most unique and historic spaces in Cork City. Marked as part field and market garden in the 1840s, the site lay just outside the municipal eastern boundary in nineteenth century Cork City.
By the early twentieth century, the space was bound up with the site of Douglas Nurseries run by the Atkins family and Wolfe family.
In 1878 John Atkins and Joseph Wolfe established an agricultural merchant business at 49 South Mall, Cork. In 1885 a second outlet opened at 5 St Patrick’s Quay. In 1899 a legal entity, John Atkins & Co. Ltd., was founded – owned equally by John and Joseph. In 1900 rapid growth required another outlet and 54 South Mall, Cork was opened as well as a larger nursery to serve their business just off Douglas Road.
The earliest advertisement in the Cork Examiner I can find highlighting the site of their Douglas Nurseries can be tracked to 1912 and a series of extensive advertisements on a range of agricultural-related products can be viewed all the way to the early 1960s.
At the same time as the Douglas Nurseries, the Spillane family operated Lime Rock Lawn. A historic Ordnance Survey map from the 1830s shows a quarry on the north west boundary of the nurseries. The c.1910 map edition names the quarry as Lawn Quarry. Tracking the name Lime Rock Lawn in the Cork Examiner, the quarry by c.1900 was owned by the Spillane family and seems to have had a lifespan of 30 years from circa 1900-1930. The main base of the company was on Cork’s Leitrim Street, where powdered lime for land, plots and gardens, was sold as a well as providing a base for providing small limestone blocks.
John Atkins & Co. Ltd ranked as one of the top businesses in Cork City in what it sold in the early half of the twentieth century (Suttons & Southern Seed Company being others). Atkins led the way on providing seeds for an array of produce for Cork’s market gardens as well as a wide variety of plants and tree species, and agricultural implements. The Douglas Nurseries was a large site of over ten acres – and is also shown in an ordnance survey map from c.1910. It was accessed via a red-bricked lodge house on Douglas Road and a narrow lane from Douglas Road (both of which survive).
In my edited book Journeys of Faith, Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Ballinlough, Celebrating 75 Years, Denis Mulvihill remembers his first job on the over ten acre site at Douglas Nurseries in the mid-1950s: “My first job was in Douglas Nurseries, run by Atkins. I left school and went out to work at 15 years of age. I worked in Atkins for nine months and it was hard work. The manager was a Mr Jones from Wales. Mr Wolfe was head of the Atkins business. When I was there, 12-14 people were working there. One of the lads was an old gentleman, Con O’Sullivan from Ballinlough. Where now St Anthony’s School is, there was a wall across there and that was the boundary of the nurseries. Inside that wall were the fruit trees. The premises extended all the way down to Douglas Road. There were several greenhouses in which tomatoes and flowers were grown. Outdoors, shrubs and fruit trees were also grown”.
Subsequently the site of the Nurseries became an informal playground of the children of Ballinlough, who did not have a formal playground. In 1968, a fire through anti-social behaviour destroyed the disused timber office and part of the glasshouses of the abandoned site.
In 1961, the Atkins South Mall outlet closed and a Winthrop Street home and garden store with its cutting edge self-selection format opened. The year 1964 coincided with the relocation of the farm machinery business from St Patricks Quay in Cork City to Carrigrohane Road on the outskirts of the city. There the commencement of importation of several lines of machinery from Europe began. Evolving business models though led Douglas Nurseries to close in 1965.
In December 1972 Cork Corporation approved a development plan for a swimming pool, playing pitches, tennis courts, and squash courts across new open spaces at Douglas Nurseries and on Boreenmanna Road.
The plan at the former Nurseries envisaged a swimming pool, a large playing field, a garden type area targeted for senior citizens with interlinking and circular paths, together with a sheltered sunken garden on the old quarry area as well as a playing area for toddlers in its northern section.
The colloquial name Japanese Gardens given to the garden type area is said to derive from the planted blossom trees, whose flowers bloom every April. The cherry blossom is the national flower of Japan and hence the colloquial name Japanese Gardens. However, the former nurseries also sold Japanese Larch Trees, which may also be a connection! I have an open mind if anyone knows!